The real plum for not-quite-plugged-in folks like me, however, is a constant flow of invitations to participate in media awards programs. Of the 7,200 such contests conducted over the last year by revenue-starved institutions (entry fees are prominently involved), I was asked to judge exactly two. Still, I take the responsibility seriously. If some poor sap has been tasked with dolling up an awards entry and getting it dissected by his superiors, the least I can do is devote 11 seconds to immersing myself in its very essence.
The more interesting of the two programs was the one that sought to celebrate the most informative and/or provocative videos produced by magazines for their websites. As part of the exercise, I examined both stand-alone videos and web series. In the process, I learned valuable life and career skills about arcane subjects: planning birthday parties, grilling vegetables, buying a suit, etc.
About six minutes into the judging, it dawned on me just how screwed most of these magazine companies really are. In their rush to cash in on web video, most seem to have convinced themselves that sloppily edited six-minute clips pass for must-see content. It's as if the very act of creating something that moves and talks has blinded producers and editors to the dullness of their creations.
Take Playboy.com's "Ask Hef Anything" series, in which the robe-encrusted octogenarian answers questions in a manner so stiff and stilted as to prompt concern about his well-being. Ignoring the obvious first issue -- what kind of sick, misguided bastard would ask Hugh Hefner about a flag-burning amendment? -- I have no clue how training a camera on an individual who has lived his entire adult life in the public eye qualifies as innovation, much less as something that could ultimately bolster the bottom line.
At least the Hef sessions don't last much longer than 90 seconds. The fashion mags go three times as long, offering bland Fashion Week footage set to spacey club music. The entertainment and celeb mags serve up giggly commentaries on "American Idol." The travel mags unleash their hammiest correspondents on defenseless cities and tourist hotspots. There's nothing novel about any of this; we've seen identical dreck on the boob tube for years. Replicating it in a different medium doesn't magically make it entertaining.
Meanwhile, somebody needs to slip a tranquilizer into the Perrier of whoever produces the video commentaries of TV Guide's otherwise well-informed Michael Ausiello. By sprinkling them with wink-wink puns and cable-access-ish effects ("NBC better renew this show for a third season or [cue demonic eyes and background flames] there will be hell to pay!"), the producers/editors/writers render him a helpless cornball.
During the judging process, I did stumble across a few interesting segments that I wouldn't have found on my own. I like the quick-hit quirk of Newsweek's campaign-trail dispatches, especially when contrasted with Time's fluff about Deepak Chopra and "Favorite Movie Kisses." The science-and-info folks have distinguished themselves, especially in Popular Science's wildly clever 5-Minute Projects (a coffee-can cellphone antenna, a disposable camera belt), and PC World's off-the-cuff iPhone Stress Tests.
Marketers shouldn't get too cute here, though. Simply put, they should limit themselves to matching their product/service with the content. (In other news, dirt is brown.) These videos remain a very new thing to a large percentage of viewers/readers and aren't especially well-trafficked. While that might prompt some organizations to use the online arena as a test lab for their more creative, outlandish thinking, I don't see any point in getting overly ambitious with their ads before the dust settles.
The good? A 15-second spot (with a static ad next to the video player) for Windows Mobile nicely complements the aforementioned iPhone video. Too, in limited instances, title sponsors make sense. Any number of food, houseware or kitchen-appliance marketers would be smart to ally themselves with Good Housekeeping, assuming the site re-ups its video feature come November.
As I've stated many times, here and elsewhere, I like magazines. They keep me company in the subway and on the toilet. Whatever doomsday business scenarios have been floated for the industry, magazines will remain a viable and massive part of the media mix until somebody devises a better way to sate our relentless subway/toilet information-delivery demands.
That said, a solid 85% of magazine websites are way out of their depth when they turn their attention to video. Maybe the mere creation of these clips, the fact that they exist, is cause for celebration in magazineland. But outside its inky gates, the standards are a bit higher. All most magazines are accomplishing here is further scuffing their already diminished brands.